How Rights of Nature Will Help Restore Mexico City’s Rivers

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What is Earth Law?

A growing body of law called Earth Law is emerging as a solution to today’s environmental crisis. Earth Law represents a move from a human-centered legal system to one that serves all life on Earth. Achieving this paradigm shift requires securing fundamental rights for nature. To give a few examples, securing rights for nature would mean that rivers have a right to clean water and adequate flows, and ecosystems have a right to integral health free from pollution. This paradigm shift would also grant nature standing to defend its rights in court, just like humans and corporations.

“In the face of climate change and other enormous environmental challenges, our future as a species depends on those people who are creating the legal and political spaces within which our connection to the rest of our community here on Earth is recognized,” notes Cormac Cullinan in his article “If Nature Had Rights.”

Mexico City creates a new constitution recognizing Earth Law

In January 2017, Mexico City adopted rights of nature language into its new constitution. Article 13 of the constitution, called the Carta Magna, proclaims: “The right to the preservation and protection of nature will be guaranteed by Mexico City authorities in the scope of their competence, always promoting citizen participation in this subject.” In preparation for the inclusion of such language, Mexico hosted the First Forum on the Rights of Nature in the summer of 2016, a large event that welcomed 150 international activists, artists and organizations all focused on achieving environmental justice. Among these organizations were the World Conscious Pact, Derechos de la Madre Tierra (Rights of Mother Earth) of Mexico and Organi-K.

The push to preserve the integrity of ecosystems comes not just from the people of Mexico’s 165 million hectares of farm and forest land, but from its urban centers as well. Much like Washington, D.C., Mexico City is a progressive hot spot where citizens advocate for continued evolution of governing laws. For decades Mexico City, like Washington, enjoyed the unique status of a Federal District — not just a city, but not exactly a state either. While D.C. gained the right to control many of its own affairs via a mayor and city council in 1964, Mexico City did not elect a mayor until 1997.[1] Even more recent is the city’s ability to draft its own constitution, an opportunity that sprung from the push to make Mexico City a “federal entity” rather than a district. Unlike Washington, D.C., Mexico City essentially won statehood in 2013.

With Mexico City’s newfound autonomy came a chance to put the power in the hands of the nearly 9 million people who call “la Ciudad de Mexico” home. In an unprecedented move, Mexico City’s mayor, Miguel Ángel Mancera, opened the floor to ideas from the public via a simple Change.Org petition format. Environmental action gained a prominent seat at the constitutional drafting table, amongst other progressive causes such as LGBT and animal rights. One participant saw his petition for green space per capita requirements go from 600 to 10,000 signatures nearly overnight, earning his ideas an official place in the constitutional text. The crowd-sourced ideas were reviewed by a diverse panel of legal experts, policy advisors and even artists and activists. This panel drafted the Carta Magna based on these ideas.

The Campesino Movement gave these goals added momentum. The Campesinos are a collective of family-based farmers worldwide who advocate for sustainable efforts to curb the destruction of the land from activities such as fracking and mining. The Campesinos (taken from the Spanish word for “peasants” or “oppressed farmers”) have grown quickly by combining deep-rooted values of indigenous peoples and rural farmers with modern outreach techniques, such as social media and online press. Though largely ignored by government and corporations, the Campesino movement has helped popularize the nature’s rights and community rights movements. They have also connected famers with environmental allies across Mexico and Latin America to seek action beyond their national borders – for example, by appealing to the U.N. to support farmers against businesses, governments and cartels that threaten their health and livelihoods.

With the territory being home to an estimated 12 percent of the planet’s biodiversity,[2] most of Mexico’s population remains closely connected with nature, helping fuel the development of a fervent environmental movement. While subsistence farmers and indigenous people are often amongst the most economically disadvantaged in the nation, it is the encroachment of modern monoculture farming and big agri-business that threatens to truly strip them of their limited wealth. Earth Law becomes a way in which their voices can be heard and accounted for, and a way to codify and safeguard natures’ best interests – and as a result, theirs as well.

Mexico City is not the first to include rights of nature in its constitution. In 2008 Ecuador approved a new constitution that featured articles granting rights to nature and setting a precedent for their defense.[3] Ecuador’s constitution states that nature “has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.” In 2012, Bolivia followed suit by passing a national law recognizing the rights of nature. The legislation states: “Mother Earth has the following rights: to life, to the diversity of life, to water, to clean air, to equilibrium, to restoration, and to pollution-free living.”[4]

Recognizing the rights of rivers

The year 2017 has been marked by new legal rights for rivers. New Zealand’s parliament formally enacted a treaty in March that recognized the Whanganui as a legal person with fundamental rights, including the right to sue, making it the first river in the world to gain recognized legal rights.[5] Just five days later, the Uttarakhand high court in India recognized two rivers (the Ganga and Yamuna) as “living entities” with fundamental rights, also allowing designated humans to represent the rivers in court and file complaints on the rivers’ behalf.[6] And most recently, in May 2017, Colombia’s Constitutional Court granted rights to the Atrato River[7] and ordered the government to clean up its waters.

To continue the momentum of new rivers gaining legal rights, ELC is developing a Universal Declaration of River Rights. This document recognizes that legal rights for rivers can mean a broad range of things, but at its core includes:

·      the right to flow,

·      the right to perform essential functions within its ecosystem,

·      the right to be free from pollution,

·      the right to feed and be fed by sustainable aquifers,

·      the right to native biodiversity, and

·      the right to restoration.

Legally, implementing these rights means that rivers will be protected aside from their utility to humans. It will also mean that the rights of a river – those necessary to achieve healthy waterways – will be enforceable by courts on behalf of the river itself. And these rights would apply not only to a river, but also to the river basin of which a river is a part.

Parallel to the Declaration, ELC launched a campaign to secure legal rights for the Magdalena River (or “rio Magdalena”) in Mexico City. This campaign draws from the rights of nature provision in Mexico City’s new constitution. It also builds off the efforts of those organizations tirelessly working to protect Mexico’s waterways and environment. Already, ELC is partnering with many of these groups, including Cuatro al Cubo, Organi-K, Dale la Cara al Atoyac, Nuiwari, A.C. and a myriad of others.

How did the Rio Magdalena come to be Mexico City’s last free-flowing river? 

The Rio Magdalena is Mexico City’s last and only free-flowing river, from an original host of 45 living rivers. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was built in 1325 on a network of islands, sitting on Lake Texcoco. There were dikes and canals, and the Aztecs planted crops on man-made floating gardens called chinampas. The lake provided the Aztecs with a line of defense, and the chinampas provided sustenance. The central idea revolved around living with nature.

Then the conquering Spaniards waged war against water, determined to subdue it. They replaced the Aztec systems with streets and squares. They drained the lakes and cleared forest land. Soon, the city suffered from flood after flood, including one that flooded the city for five straight years.[8]

The Grand Canal, finished in 1894, was supposed to fix all the flooding. And until 1910, it worked as designed – purely by gravity. Over the next five decades, however, its inclination declined to 10 centimeters per kilometer due to land subsidence of seven meters. Several large pumps were installed in an attempt to maintain its capacity. Due to further land settlement, the inclination in the Grand Canal became zero by 1990 and negative by 2000.[9]

One of the most serious problems resulting from subsidence is the lowering of the elevation of Mexico City relative to Texcoco Lake – the natural low point of the southern portion of the basin. In 1900, the bottom of the lake was three meters lower than the median level of the city center. By 1974, the lake bottom was two meters higher than the city. These changes have aggravated the flooding problem and are reflected in the evolution of the complex drainage system to control flooding.[10]

In what was once a water-rich valley, Mexico City now must import over a third of its water from increasingly remote sources. Due to leaks and pilfering another 40 percent is lost when the water runs through 8,000 miles of pipes. Pumping all that water more than one mile uphill consumes roughly as much energy as does the entire metropolis of Puebla, a Mexican state capital with a population akin to Philadelphia’s. [11] Despite this, over a third of residents must hire water trucks or “pipas” to deliver drinking water since it’s not available through their taps.[12]

What’s next for the Magdalena and other rivers?

ELC wants to reverse the narrative of Mexico City’s waterways from one of degradation and loss to one of restoration, harmony with nature and thriving community life. We believe that establishing legal rights for the Magdalena is the first step towards achieving that vision. Success means the Magdalena can also serve as a model for additional campaigns to establish legal rights for rivers in Mexico, North America and worldwide.

Here is what’s in the pipeline for ELC to achieve legal rights for the Magdalena and other waterways:

·      Forum on river rights: A Forum on the Rights of Rivers is being held in Puebla, Mexico (a few hours from Mexico City) from November 11-13, 2017. Here experts, activists, government and community members will explore global trends in legal rights for rivers and outline a future in which Mexico’s rivers have rights as well. Earth Law Center will be in attendance speaking on its Universal Declaration of the Rights of Rivers and the Magdalena River. Email gwilson@earthlaw.org if you are interested in attending.

·      Rights for two other rivers: In addition to the Magdalena, ELC and partners are seeking fundamental rights for two other rivers in Mexico: the Atoyac and the San Pedro Mezquital. The Atoyac is one of the most polluted rivers in Mexico, while the San Pedro Mezquital is sacred to the Wixárika people and is being threatened by a destructive dam project. Stay tuned for details about public events in support of these campaigns.

·      Building the river rights movement: There are many ways that you can support ELC and help us achieve rights for rivers in Mexico and worldwide.

1.     Donate to ELC

2.     Volunteer with ELC

3.     Connect with us on social media and sign up for our newsletter

4.     Contact ELC if you want to work on your own river rights campaign


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Mexico_City

[2] http://geo-mexico.com/?p=2765

[3] https://news.mongabay.com/2017/05/colombias-constitutional-court-grants-rights-to-the-atrato-river-and-orders-the-government-to-clean-up-its-waters/

[4] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-neill/law-of-mother-earth-a-vis_b_6180446.html

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/16/new-zealand-river-granted-same-legal-rights-as-human-being

[6] http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/ganges-and-yamuna-rivers-given-rights-people-india-180962639/

[7] https://news.mongabay.com/2017/05/colombias-constitutional-court-grants-rights-to-the-atrato-river-and-orders-the-government-to-clean-up-its-waters/

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/02/17/world/americas/mexico-city-sinking.html?_r=0

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_management_in_Greater_Mexico_City

[10] https://www.nap.edu/read/4937/chapter/4#14

[11] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/02/17/world/americas/mexico-city-sinking.html?_r=0

[12] http://www.hiddenhydrology.org/category/city/mexico-city/